Don’t Skip the Reference Check

Strategic Partner, Diane Janovsky brings up a very important issue, reference checks. Most of us feel that no one in their right minds would give us a bad reference…and we are right! So if you uncover something in a reference check, you should pay careful attention to that discovery. In addition, previous employers are very cautious about giving a negative reference due to legal issues. However, what they DON’T SAY speaks volumes. For example, if a person is not eligible for rehire, why is that? Enjoy the information in this week’s Power Idea. It’s one more factor about attracting the right people to your team. Don’t forget to register today for our next webinar – Building High Performance Teams on October 23rd at 8:00 AM PDT. 

A job candidate’s resume is fundamentally a personal marketing tool, which means that the content may not necessarily be 100% factual; nor will a resume alone tell you if the candidate will be a good cultural fit to the company and the role. With research showing that the cost of hiring the wrong person runs anywhere from 3 to 10 times their annual salary, one of your jobs as a hiring manager is to perform due diligence on top candidates. Although it can be time-consuming, checking references is a key step in the hiring process and can pay dividends in the long run.

The Basics 

No matter what method you use to check references, you should be aware of some basic guidelines (consult your attorney for specific requirements for your organization and state):

  • Have the candidate sign a release giving permission to conduct checks with both named and un-named references, as well as to perform background and credit checks.
  • Whether you are conducting an employer, educational or personal reference, ask ONLY job-related questions.
  • “Any time you use an applicant’s or employee’s background information to make an employment decision, regardless of how you got the information, you must comply with federal laws that protect applicants and employees from discrimination. That includes discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, or religion; disability; genetic information (including family medical history); and age (40 or older). These laws are enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.” See the EEOC website for further details.
  • Document the steps you take in the reference check to protect yourself in case of a lawsuit or future employee dismissal, and retain this documentation as part of your employment records retention process.

Employer References 

References from former employers are typically the most valuable, but because of concern on liability, it has become more and more challenging to obtain meaningful information. (Tip: Check with your state because some actually require that employers provide a job reference letter or other information on past employees.) In many cases, previous employers will only verify basic data like service dates, job titles, rates of pay, and perhaps the nature of tasks or responsibilities. However, here are some steps you can take to make the process more effective:

  • Conduct reference checks via phone as people tend to be more open if they do not need to put their answers in writing. It is also faster and less time-consuming.
  • Take the time to establish rapport with the reference by introducing yourself and explaining the job opportunity. They may be more forthcoming if it feels like a conversation rather than an inquisition.
  • Listen for word choices, intonation, level of enthusiasm, long pauses or hesitations from the reference. Sometimes what is left unsaid is more important than what is said.
  • Let the candidate know in advance that you will be checking references. They will be more likely to provide truthful answers during the interview.
  • Use candidate responses from the interview as a starting point to help you elicit more information during the reference check. Rather than asking, “Tell me about Deborah’s performance”, you might say something like, “Deborah tells me that she was a key player on the XYZ project.”
  • Always ask if they would re-hire the candidate and in what role. 

Educational References 

Education related credentials tend to be the most misrepresented items on a resume. They are among the easier facts to confirm, yet prospective employers rarely verify them. Inaccuracies include whether a degree or certification was obtained, which degree or certification was obtained, or which institution was attended. Employers in highly technical industries must be particularly on guard to ensure their employees are in fact qualified to perform their job duties. Dishonesty on a resume is also an overall indicator of a candidate’s character and should be a red flag.

Most colleges, universities and trade schools will verify degrees or certifications and dates of attendance. Some will do so by phone and others may require requests in writing. You can also do some initial screening by asking the candidate for copies of diplomas or certified copies of transcripts.

Personal References 

Many employers do not check personal references because there is a perception that the feedback will only be positive. Surprisingly, personal references can turn out to be inappropriate or unprepared, or they may volunteer more information than the candidate intended. At a minimum, though, they can provide valuable nuances or indicators that may assist in identifying the candidate who will best fit with an organization’s culture.

Social Media 

While it is recognized as a powerful recruitment tool, the use of social media as part of the reference checking process is a gray area. While the EEOC is exploring governance, it has not yet issued specific rules on the topic. Here are some factors to weigh if you are considering the use of social media to check prospective job candidates (again, consult your attorney for guidance):

  • Anti-discrimination laws apply regardless of where an employer sees protected information (such as ethnicity or family status), even if it is on a “public profile.”
  • Several states already have laws restricting employers from requesting passwords from job applicants to access their personal information on sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn, and further legislation is pending in other states.
  • To eliminate the opportunity for sub-conscious judgments, consider using third-party firms to conduct social media searches according to formal guidelines.

Although the hiring process is evolving, especially in light of the seemingly unlimited availability of on-line information, it is still critical for hiring managers to perform due diligence and conduct reference checks. The time and effort expended is a small price to pay for the ongoing benefits of hiring the right person the first time.



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